Daily Reading

December 28, 2011

Today, we finished reading the entire bible to the boys. As you would expect, all three boys heard the same stories in their own unique way. Josiah did his best to listen and remember. Corban sat through it and heard, always wanting to have the first look at the pictures. Malachi enjoyed the dependable ritual and the pleasure of pointing and shouting, “Bible!”.

Charlotte and I enjoyed it too. Reading a children’s bible is a nice opportunity to drink a distilled version of scripture. Often, the author’s impression of the main idea of a text shone through where we used to get mired in strange details.

Josiah didn’t want to finish today, preferring to save the last story for New Year’s Eve. Baiting him with the chance to start again with Genesis was no help. Finally, all I could say was, “The year doesn’t have to match the bible; what’s important is that we match the bible.” I don’t know if that satisfied him, but he quit arguing.

Upside-down budgeting

December 17, 2011

I got a call a couple days ago from an electrician I used to have dealings with back in my old job. After a couple minutes listening to his situation and advising him, I finally interrupted his request, and let him know I haven’t worked there in a year and a half. I was struck by how naturally it came to me to help guide him to the solution to his problem. But when it came down to being the guy to help him out, well, I’m not the guy.

“So what are you doing now?” he wanted to know. I gave him a sunnier than truthful reply about the joys of beekeeping from home, calling it “bigger and better.” Sitting back, I wonder how I’ve lasted this long. Lots of contributing factors, really. But when folks want to know how we’re doing, what they mean is, how are you doing financially.

Without going into the thumbs up or down just yet, I think our budgeting has probably been the most interesting feature of our new normal. How exactly do you budget when you have no idea what your income is?

We do it upside-down.

Working for a paycheck, we knew how much was coming in during a period of time–in my case, bi-weekly–and we made sure our expenditures stayed below that. We would plan for every conceivable expenditure, working our way from the most important, inflexible, and constant, down to the adjustable, optional, or frivolous. But if what we want costs money, weu’ve got to have the money first; hence, a budget.

Not having a paycheck, we still budget. But instead of starting with our income and staying within that to determine our expenses, we start with our planned expenses and use that to determine what our income has to be. Upside-down. We still make and keep our budget amounts, but now the whole thing is tied to what we know we have to generate. Before, money saved in one area could be saved or spent in others (remember, “savings” is simply another kind of budgeted “expense”). Now, that is still true, but it also translates into time and work spared. In the old system, time and work were constant.

Another interesting feature is our tithing. Before, we calculated our tithe based on income. Every week, our donation was 1/20 of our bi-weekly income. The whole, “give as you have been given” thing. But we can’t go to church week after week and use its resources without giving back something, regardless of the irregular nature of our income. Upside-down works here too.

We’ve already decided how much expenses we expect for any period of time; a week, month or a year. So our income has to be no less than that amount. Therefore, our tithe can be built right in, since income is assumed. For example, for every $90 I plan on spending on any non-charitable expense, I also plan on spending another $10 on charity. So adding up all budgeted expenses, and dividing by 9 gives the budgeted charitable amount. Dividing this over the year gives the Adding this to the other expenses then yields the true minimum budgeted income.

Crazy, you say? Why not just pay 10% of whatever comes in whenever it comes in? Sounds good except that, once again, the operational costs of the charities we support don’t work on our income schedule. Their needs are constant, or at least as constant as our use of them. Plus, once you open yourself up to being generous only when your ship comes in, all kinds of detrimental habits pour in.

This is how we do things now.

One year later

June 24, 2011

It was a year ago today (well, tomorrow actually, but it was on a Friday) that I was let go from my old job. Sometimes you get to choose which mountain you climb to gain a new perspective. Usually, the path you are on chooses the mountain for you. But either way, life looks the way it looks to you, whether you like it or not.

So what are some things I learned this year? Well…

  1. People ask, “so what do you do?” quite often.
  2. When they do, “I’m a beekeeper,” makes for a very interesting introduction.
  3. Working away from home can definitely feel like a break from the kids.
  4. I wouldn’t go back to my old job for twice the money.
  5. Sometimes, the need/desire for money makes it tempting to find a job for half what I used to make.
  6. We could easily live on a third of what I used to make; maybe less.
  7. Every day is Monday when you are self-employed, but any time can be quitting time.
  8. It is possible for me to drive around and not look up at power poles. In fact, I much prefer looking at “what the bees are working”.
  9. Emergency funds make these kind of life shifts possible.

So yeah, all the old sayings are true: work hard, have fun, be generous in your giving, trust God, stick to your budget, listen to advice, follow it when it’s good, say “hmmm, okay!” when it’s not.

Knowing that people are concerned and interested in what we’re doing is probably the most encouraging thing of all. So thanks for reading!

What is your time worth?

April 7, 2011

With the expanding bee yard, I’ve needed for some time to build a lot of bee boxes and frames for them to live and work in. Collectively referred to as “woodenware”, these boxes and frames are as standardized as they are simple. Sadly, you can’t just walk into your local orange box and buy them. And I need a lot of them.

So the first question is deciding where to buy them. You can get some pretty sweet deals online, but shipping usually blows away your savings. I found a “guy” who said he could make me all my woodenware real cheap, but after 5 months and mostly empty promises, my guy is as undependable as he is apologetic. Sometimes, you end up paying the stupid tax.

After wasting way too much time waiting for woodenware that didn’t come, I went to a local supply company that was just what I needed. Friendly staff, on-site manufacturing, high-quality products, fair prices, and best of all, no shipping costs. The drive across town was pennies compared to what I would have had to pay to have the stuff shipped down to my place.

Okay, so the next question is: do I buy pre-assembled woodenware, or unassembled? I save about $0.50 per frame and about $4.75 per hive box when I go unassembled. Then I have to buy the nails and an electric nail gun to save some time. But then there’s all that time to put it all together. We’re talking days of work!

Here’s the thing. This is my job now. Putting together 2000 frames may take a long time, but it saves hundreds of dollars at that quantity. I did the math:

Cost difference of 2000 frames assembled vs. unassembled = $1,000
Electric nail gun and nails = $100
Net savings = $900
Total assembly time at an average time of 51 seconds per frame (yes, I timed myself) = 28 1/3 hours
Savings rate = $31.76/hour

Okay, so assembling them myself, I am “making” over $30/hr. Not bad for an amateur carpenter who’s not even working a saw.

How about this? Here are the calcs for the hive boxes:

Cost difference of 250 supers assembled vs. unassembled = $1,187.50
Nails (I already had a hammer) = $30
Net savings = $1,137.50
Total assembly time at an average of 3 1/4 minutes per box (it’s still me) = 13 hours 32 minutes 30 seconds
Savings rate = $85.48/hour

See how much satisfaction comes from just a little bit of math?

Just living

January 27, 2011

One hive I started last year is on its last leg, and will be dead within a week or so. It’s kind of sad, really, as we kept this hive right next to our house as a kind of “pet” hive.

A few weeks ago, at Corban’s third birthday party, I noticed a small cluster of live bees on the ground in front of the hive. I thought this would be a neat thing to pick up and show our party guests, but when I picked them up, I noticed in my hand the improbable sight of a young queen bee. I put her back in the hive box and left them alone for a while. Later that day, I saw her again on the ground in front of the hive. I figured they must have requeened, gotten several queens to choose from, and this was one of the rejects. So I picked her up and brought her inside to show folks.

But then I opened the hive to see what was going on. I saw a terribly diminished colony, and no queen in sight. Trouble. This wasn’t a reject. This was THE queen, but she just wasn’t staying in. I put her back in and hoped for the best.

Two weeks later, I checked again. This time, no queen and about half the number of bees. Maybe there was something wrong with her and she couldn’t go on her mating flight. Maybe this colony just decided to give up. They were foraging like nothing much was wrong. They had plenty of honey and pollen stored up to feed on. But with no queen to replenish their numbers, the workers would live out their lives as normal; for them, a ripe old age. But the colony as a whole is doomed.

It honestly reminds me of some churches I’ve been to. To the casual observer, things might seem okay, maybe even vibrant. Lots of activity going on; everybody doing their job well enough; plenty of resources available for the members to enjoy as long as they are there. But the whole time, they are one generation away from annihilation. Growth may not be the prime objective. But without it, extinction is inevitable. Like a hive, it’s hard to find the line between a vibrant but dying church, and one that is obviously on its last leg. But like a hive, if in one glance you notice that there is no action in place to carry on your teachings down the road to a group that is not even born yet, even the young among you are no guarantee that the hive will live to see the next Spring.

Jaw surgery! One year later

January 7, 2011

It was a year ago today that I had my much debated and eagerly needed jaw surgery. Looking back on the day and the post from that event, it seems like a lifetime ago. Back then, I had two kids, a paying job with benefits, a really messed up bite that I managed to hide pretty well, and the feeling that I had a pretty good bead on life and how things worked.

Since then, of course. Things have changed. Dramatically!

The two kids now have a new little brother who will be a year old next month. That makes Corban the middle kid, and Josiah the oldest, and not just the older brother. Traditionally, middle kids are the easy-going peace makers. But so far, Corban hasn’t really owned up to this role. I think his being a middle kid is taking a back seat to him being a two year-old. In fact, now that I think about it, Corban has pretty much thrown peace-making in the trunk.

Then there’s the job situation. Before, I had a sense of rhythm in working and money that I took for granted. Reading the tea leaves, it had already become obvious to me that there was no such thing as a safe job. Still, you never think it’ll happen to you. The time off for surgery and having a baby, it seems, were foreshadows of the layoff. Charlotte and I both thought aloud that, while the healing process wasn’t enjoyable, it sure was nice having all that time at home. Now that we have traded in bi-weekly compensation for a more seasonal approach, time at home is the norm, though it still seems like the hot commodity that it always was. Looking back, I wonder if being off that long at just that time was the thing that put my name at the top of the layoff list. We’ll never know for sure.

By far, the greatest source of concern was over health insurance. As anyone who has been in this situation knows, the default coverage is COBRA, a ridiculously expensive plan that, in my opinion, was designed for the sole purpose of reducing the sticker shock of regular individual plans. Using simple logic and basic math, of course, it became quickly apparent that the prohibitive price of COBRA was not reason enough to hurry up and sign up for a family plan.

When our old insurance provider dropped the previously approved coverage for my jaw surgery and wouldn’t take “please” for an answer, we had a valuable crash course in self-paying. Armed with this experience, Charlotte went down the list of all our medical providers and gathered an expected yearly cost for out-of-pocket medical expenses. Bottom line, self-paying is way cheaper than insurance. Especially with the nickels and dimes added on for things that we needed, but which they wouldn’t pay for anyway. What started out as a terrifying situation quickly became the preferred choice. So here we are today: self-paying, and saving lots of money.

But the big change this year was my mouth. It’s been so long that I hardly notice the change, but looking back on the pictures, the difference is crazy. The profile is way more noticeable than the head-on shot, but the real zinger is looking at how my front teeth meet as compared to pre-surgery.

So one year later, to the day, and I am free of my braces, any residual or permanent numbness is either insignificant or unnoticeable, and I can clean a corn cob with surgical precision. My dentist just shakes his head in wonder, and Charlotte thinks my smile is pretty. Even though it cost thousands of dollars, lots of pain and inconvenience, and maybe even my job, it was a good investment.

So began 2010. If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.


       Before surgery…                           One year later… 





Attitude is everything

January 6, 2011

We’ve redoubled our efforts to read the bible aloud to the boys every day. In the past, we had read one chapter out of Proverbs each night, and repeating every month. As with most resolutions, though, we seldom got in more than 4 or 5 days in a row. While I’m sure we’ve read the entire book to them several times, there was never a month where we could say that we read the whole thing from start to finish without a break.

So it is with a heavy dose of pragmatism that we approached the idea of reading the whole bible to them. One thing we did was pick a bible that is more age-appropriate. Obviously, my personal NRSV is a bit advanced. But we also have some that are a bit too elementary. We settled on our copy of  The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories as our text. Each day’s reading is enough to discuss with Josiah, but not too much for Corban to listen to. Five days into the new year, and we’ve not only kept up with our reading, but I’ve even gotten some unsolicited requests to keep reading.

So yesterday, we hit the story of Cain and Abel; particularly, the difference in their sacrifices. This bible story is somewhat mysterious, as it merely states that God looked with regard toward Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s. I’ve heard many explanations over the years as to why this is. One old standard was that it was because Abel offered a blood sacrifice that his was accepted, while Cain’s offering of produce was rejected because no blood was offered. It’s an interesting foreshadowing to the Mosaic law of burnt offering, and ultimately Jesus’ sacrifice. But I honestly never bought it. After all, Cain would have to trade his crops for some of Abel’s sheep in order to get a proper sacrifice if this was the case. In essence, by being a farmer, Cain would have nothing of his own to offer God at all, and that just doesn’t seem right to me.

Another explanation with some textual support was that Abel gave the best of his flock, while Cain merely offered some of his crops, without regard to quality. This explanation has gotten a bit more mileage, and deservedly so. But maybe there’s something else.

In our reading, though, there was a bit of editorializing that made sense. It said:

God looked at the fine offerings they had brought, and then he looked at the two brothers themselves. He saw the kind of people they were. … God refused Cain’s present. He could not accept Cain because he was cold and proud and self-willed.

I love this explanation. According to this, God wasn’t displeased at all with the offerings, but with the one doing the offering. After all, Cain was the man who would later kill his brother over this incident. Surely God could see through the offering and sense that germ of jealousy and violence. We read in Hebrews:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous. God himself giving approval to his gifts

The difference between Abel’s offering and Cain’s was faith, not blood. But how do you explain this to a five year-old? Charlotte summed it up best as she overheard this discussion and chimed in, “It’s all about attitude.” The light bulb lit up.

While it is true that the son who says “No”, but later obeys is more obedient than the one who agrees to help but never gets around to it, the fact is that grudging obedience is not what God is after by a long stretch. Neither is manipulative obedience. The “what’s in it for me” attitude that is common in children and adults alike spoils the season of giving. Fact is, our attitudes are what make or break our relationships; with each other and with God. Gentleness, kindness, honesty, these things make for a strong relationship that can weather tough times and overcome misunderstanding. Selfishness, brutality, neglect, these things create an environment where the slightest frayed end unravels the whole thing. The difference is attitude

Five days into this bible thing, and I’ve already got more than I can explain to the boys. This may take more than just one year.

The new rubric for parenthood

December 30, 2010

A few months ago, nephew Rusty found a trove of old Disney movies on VHS and gave them to us for our viewing pleasure. One of the earlier pics of my boys to watch was Mary Poppins; one of my favorites too.

Watching this with them took me way back to my own childhood. I remember watching Mary Poppins with the kids at church over at the home of our preacher and his wife in the little house next door to our church. I still remember Bev McEldowney asking me what my favorite part of the movie was, and telling her it was when all the chimney sweeps were dancing up on the roof.

Nowadays, however, the movie has a very different significance to me. I’m suddenly socked in the gut at the deep life lesson offered up by old Walt, as I consider how I try to raise my boys. So often, it seems like a large portion of my time with them is dedicated to getting them to go to sleep. And when we’re not in the bedtime express lane, it seems like all I say is “no”, “stop that”, or “do as I say!”. The spoonful of sugar is maddeningly elusive.

All the more reason to strive to find it. Sometimes, it’s the hugs and “I love you”s after a stern rebuke. Other times, it’s the reward offered for prompt obedience. Still other times, it’s the fun way we do some chore to make it funner. But for me, more than anything, it’s a sense of gentleness I try to exude in all my dealings with the boys. It’s how I want them to think about their dad. Do I still fuss at them, sometimes gruffly? Of course. But my goal, and the example set before me, is to be thought of as more kind than tough.

Let’s go fly a kite.

50th wedding anniversary

November 28, 2010

About a year ago, my sister Maria and I hatched a plot to throw a surprise party for our parents’ 50th anniversary, which is this year; next month, actually. This weekend, we pulled it off.

The ideas and planning started slowly enough, but built up quite a bit of steam over the months. The first thing we did was involve key personnel at their church. We figured that there would be enough people to need a place bigger than one of our homes, and church was the largest place we could get them to come to without raising suspicion. We then compiled a guest list and invited folks. By this point, the planning shifted sharply away from me and onto Charlotte, who is highly gifted at such things. Several folks at their church moved and shook things on that end, but Maria and Charlotte were the masterminds.

Most of this year, their church was under construction. Luckily for us, it was finished a few months ago, and would serve nicely. With days to go, decorations and food assembly commenced, all under the secretive cover of Thanksgiving preparations and family visiting. The venue was declared to the congregation as an “after Thanksgiving get-together” with the entire congregation, minus the happy couple, aware of the secret purpose of this little event.

It was amazing. Family and friends alike from hundreds of miles away all gathered, and the secret was never let out. Even walking through the hallway of the building to the meeting hall, they honestly had no idea. What fun!

Of course it was nerve-wracking. Keeping a secret that big for that long from your parents who live next door is hard enough without three kids who always say what they are thinking. Naturally, they had to be kept in the dark too. Charlotte and I were never keen on surprises; especially surprise parties. On the way to the party, we renewed our own vows never to do such a thing for each other. But it was a really fun event, and a thrill to pull off.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. Keep it up.


Hosting a field trip

November 14, 2010

Last Friday, we had several families bring their homeschooled kids over to the bee farm (a.k.a our home) for a tour. These were folks that we’ve gotten to know through our homeschooling co-op that Josiah is enrolled in. Very polite, very inquisitive, asking good questions, and following directions like, “don’t poke sticks into the beehives.” I wonder if Corban has already forgotten that one.

So we started with our little hive right next to the house. This was the gathering place for the group while we waited for stragglers. I got to explain some basics about bees and their normal daily activites. From there, we passed my front yard bug zapper where I stopped the group and asked them why it wasn’t full of bees. One of the dads answered that one before the kids could think of the answer, however, so we moved on.

We passed a few hives on the way to the main bee yard. People were starting to get used to seeing more than one hive. Good!

Faced with over fifty hives at once, not too many intrepid souls ventured among the pallets. A few kids; that’s about it. It was a cool morning, though, and the air wasn’t as thick with bees as it could have been. The children began finding bees crawling on the ground, nearly spent from their short but productive lives. How about that? You can just pick them up and they are gentle. That’s right, boys and girls. Bees are our friends.

Finally, we went to one of my older hives and opened it up. I showed them a veil, but let them wear it rather than don it myself. I pulled out one of the frames full of honey and let them taste it right off the comb. Going deeper, I then showed them a frame with brood. I was hoping to find a bee just emerging, but no luck. It all changed when I picked another frame; this time with the queen! Well, this made their day. I had been going on about how unlikely it would be to find a single bee, albeit a super egg-laying machine, among all those other bees. But there she was, easily found, even though she wasn’t marked.

I hadn’t seen this hive’s queen in over a year when I marked her. Those of you who follow bees can figure that one of two things happened: either the marking had rubbed off, or this was a new queen. Regardless, the hive was strong, healthy, and ready for the winter.

After all that, the big attraction for the kids was playing with Max in the driveway. Yes, bees are cool, especially if you get to see and hold them. But you just can’t beat the comforting familiarity of a big black dog that knows a couple tricks.