Making Stock, Taking Stock

Making Stock

We’ve had the habit for many years of constantly making stock. We are always saving any bits of vegetables left after slicing and dicing — carrot tops, onion skins — as well as the occasional bone. We save these in the fridge and, every few days, we boil them in water to make a stock. If we already have a stock on hand, we simply combine everything. The stock grows richer, and darker, and more flavorful, with each iteration. A stock will keep indefinitely if you boil it often enough. Each stock is different, unique. We couldn’t recreate them if we tried. We use the stock to give flavor to rice or greens or other such cookery.

It’s economical, it’s fun, and it also tends to make the house smell nice. I highly recommend it. It seems like a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what. That’s the very best kind of metaphor, if you ask me.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for what I’m doing right now. As I continue my quest for discovery and definition, I’ve been storing up bits and pieces, ideas and aspects. I want to pause, take stock, simmer in my own juices for a moment, see where I’m at so far.

I can say three things with some degree of certainty. I’m not sure if these qualify as statements of value or just descriptions. This is what my religion or spiritual orientation looks like in broad outline. I’ll unpack each term a little.

  • Celebratory: The main function is to celebrate, not to manipulate. Ritual practices mark our place in the world and the universe, in the wheel of the year and the cycle of life, in family and community. I use the term celebrate in the old sense. It is not a synonym for “party,” though parties are celebrations of a sort. But so are funerals. In New Orleans, of course, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
  • Naturalistic and humanistic: The natural world, as revealed through sense experience and through science, invested and storied with meaning and mythology by countless generations of humanity, is sufficient and complete in itself. Deep mysteries remain, but supernatural explanations are best understood as metaphors or thought experiments. Gods and goddesses hold special power as archetypes that emerge from human consciousness.
  • Earth-centered: The planet we live on, our home and mother, is the source of much inspiration. There is wonder in the sun and the moon and all the stars, but the Earth holds a special place of reverence and awe. To experience this place as sacred is a continual challenge for the individual in a technological-industrial society. To recognize and refocus on our participation in the ecosphere is a main purpose of religious celebration.

To these three I’m tempted to add a fourth: Communitarian. I’d like to see our practice connecting us to a larger community beyond the immediate family. I hesitate because this seems more like an aspiration than a plain fact, and I have a certain deep ambivalence about other people, especially when it comes to our most deeply cherished notions of value and cosmology. I’m skeptical of radical individualism even as I’ve lived and breathed it all my life. Civic engagement is important; revolutions of conscience are necessary; our way of being in the world must be transformed; but exactly how all this intersects with spiritual practice is a puzzle that continues to unfold.

All of this is enough to suggest some sort of naturalistic or humanistic paganism, which comes as no surprise. Through the net I’ve discovered many others of like mind. But these are very large umbrella terms. One major question that remains unresolved is whether I’m on any established path or simply blazing my own trail. It is perhaps the main question, a fact which has only become clarified through the process of writing this.

Which is what making stock is all about.

Stock

Energy Usage, One Year Later

We’ve been in our new home for 24 months now. Around this time last year, we got our twelfth bill from Entergy at the new place. That meant a year’s worth of accumulated energy consumption data. This was a handy baseline, coming just days before we insulated underneath the house with closed-cell spray foam.

So here we are, one year later. As promised, here is the energy use data for the last twelve months.

Energy Usage

Month kWh Used Days Billed Avg. Daily Usage
11/11 571 28 20.4
10/11 673 30 22.4
9/11 1169 29 40.3
8/11 1389 31 44.8
7/11 1362 29 47.0
6/11 1229 30 41.0
5/11 637 32 19.9
4/11 390 28 13.9
3/11 642 31 20.7
2/11 3072 28 109.7
1/11 3042 35 86.9
12/10 2368 32 74.0

Obviously the big question is how this compares to last year’s data. Crunch the numbers yourself if you’re so inclined. I’m simply going to put the average daily use side by side.

Month Avg. Daily Usage
(After)
Avg. Daily Usage
(Before)
11 20.4 23.7
10 22.4 30.1
9 40.3 57.3
8 44.8 68.1
7 47.0 46.4
6 41.0 46.7
5 19.9 18.7
4 13.9 23.5
3 20.7 88.8
2 109.7 92.3
1 86.9 174.9
12 74.0 82.0

On average, we used less energy after the house was insulated. More to the point, if we total up all the kilowatt hours for the respective years, we find we used 23,390 before the insulation and 16,544 after. That’s a drop of almost 7,000 kWh. Even accounting for the freakish cold snap of January 2009, it’s a substantial reduction.

Or so it seems. How much does a kilowatt hour of electricity really cost? It’s complicated. Our bill shows energy charges and fuel charges and lots of stuff I can’t quite figure. I appreciate that Entergy has some tools for analyzing your bill, but I don’t understand why they don’t retain data longer than one year. I do know that our November 2011 bill is $22.97 (31%) lower than our November 2010 bill. I assume our savings more than offset the $2000 we spent on insulation.

Caveats: I talked about energy consumption but this is actually only electrical usage. We have some gas appliances, most notably our upstairs furnace. However, the downstairs furnace and of course the air conditioning system runs on electricity.

Forty-Five Months

Forever

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-five months old today.

It seems like you’ve packed a lot of living into the last month. Especially around the holiday: We had fun making simple skull garlands out of paper and decorating the house. You had a blast on your first real round of trick-or-treating. (Afterward you wanted to wait up on the porch to see some “real goblins,” scratching their heads, unable to find you in costume.) You also enjoyed our Ancestor’s Dinner and now have some idea who at least one of your great-grandparents is. And on Día de los Muertos the whole family visited the neighborhood shrine to Santa Muerte and left some candy.

You’ve been very disciplined about rationing out your candy. We generally limit you to one item per day, after dinner. You’ll often select your desert in the morning and look forward to it all day. But you derive great pleasure simply from sorting through all that candy, again and again. I think you enjoyed that as much as actually eating it.

Candy

However, you have gotten even more picky in your general eating habits. I know it’s perfectly natural, even healthy in some ways, but it still bugs me. You wouldn’t even take a single bite of my kumquat chutney.

And then there was the morning when you threw up in bed. No wonder your appetite wasn’t so good the night before. You were quite distressed. I don’t think you’d vomited once since that time when you were nine months old. Three years is a pretty good run. We got you cleaned up, and you seemed to be feeling better. Only, oops, not quite. Let me tell you for future reference: Nothing beats stepping out on your front porch on a Sunday morning with a toddler in your arms who then vomits all over herself and you. Yuck. You had a fever for a couple days, and then, just as you were feeling better, I got sick myself. There’s a stomach virus going around your school and the city.

The biggest development of the past month, by far, is that we dismantled your crib. (Many thanks to the indefatigable R. Stephanie Bruno for the extended loaner.) You slept in your own “big girl bed” for the very first time after three and a half years. We didn’t exactly plan it, but this ended up being on the same night as the time change. We set our clocks back an hour, meaning the natural proclivity we all have to stay up and sleep in a little later gets authorized for a brief humane interval. This worked out very well.

It didn’t take you long to discover that you can now get out of bed all on your own. It’s been a pleasure to wake in the morning to the patter of your little feet running from your room to ours. Once or twice you’ve even managed to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and get back in bed, without any assistance.

That’s all well and good. What I’m dreading is when you start wandering out at night, when you should be drifting off to dreamland. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. A couple nights ago, as I was trying to fall asleep, I kept imagining that I heard your footsteps. Three times I thought I heard you, but it was just my imagination or a dream. Then I heard your steps again, and I swear I saw your shadow at our door. You weren’t actually there, but I was convinced you were.

So obviously I have some anxiety around your increasing mobility. Just imagine how I’ll feel when you get a driver’s license.

Xy had a conference for a couple days and that meant you had no ride to school. The easiest thing seemed for me to take the days off work, and so we had a couple days together. I thought we could see a movie. Turns out IMAX Under the Sea in 3D was the only G-rated flick in the greater metro area. Amazing but true. We took the streetcar downtown and checked it out. At first you didn’t want to wear the funny glasses, but once you got comfortable with them you had a blast, and so did I. A pulsating jellyfish is a perfect application of this technology. I think the eel garden was my favorite part. And the streetcar ride was every bit as much fun as the movie.

On the next day you joined us for the Mystic Toast of Eleven Times Eleven. I made you a “kiddie” version of the No. 11 Cup cocktail. Afterward we stopped by Goodwill so you could donate a toy pony, a duplicate handed down by a friend. It was your own idea.

You certainly keep busy with activities at school. It seems every day you are coming home with worksheets and art projects. Last week you showed me a brown cone you’d made, exclaiming, “A cornucopia is a horn of plunty!” I was mighty impressed to discover you are now able to draw a decent circle, and I got a further demonstration of your abilities at Where Y’Art last Friday.

Comp

Both of these pieces are inspired by the site-specific mural “Forever,” by Odili Donald Odita, now on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The top piece was created as an example by one of the art teachers at the Friday night activity table; the bottom piece was created by you, with a little help from me.

I drew some initial guide lines in faint pencil while you positioned and held a ruler. Then we colored it with markers and pencils. It was in making this together that I discovered you can now trace lines with a modicum of accuracy, something you could not even approximate a short while ago. Your fine motor skills and manual dexterity are improving by leaps and bounds at Pre-K3.

Finally, a word on meditation. I’ve been encouraging you to meditate with me some mornings when you’re not rushing off to school. It made me very happy a couple weeks ago, when you said, “Let’s meditate, Dada. I love to meditate!” A few days ago your take was quite different. “I don’t like meditating because we have to sit quietly.” At your age I can hardly fault you for a lack of constancy. To show the variety of contemplative techniques, we’re chanting now instead, a very simple chant based on the four ancient elements. Yesterday’s element was air, today was fire, tomorrow will be water. We just repeat the name of the element while visualizing it. Keeping it simple.

Unmasking

Ancestor’s Dinner

A bit discombobulated and disconnected for this recent holiday. Perhaps that’s because I was traveling just before — the POD Network traditionally has their conference at the end of October, and this one was combined with the annual conference of the HBCU Faculty Development Network, and we mustered our biggest contingent (four) ever. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I got back to New Orleans last Sunday and immediately baked some pumpkin bread. Persephone came home from a friend’s with a Disney Snow White costume on. “Uh oh,” I thought. Sure enough, she refused to wear the costume lovingly made by hand by her grandmother (an Air Princess) because she was dead set on Snow White for Halloween. It’s amazing how much Disney princess stuff has infiltrated our lives even though we haven’t bought any. Truly, we live in the Age of Cheap Crap.

Even so, it was magical to follow my daughter around on a short jaunt through the neighborhood. It was her first night to ever do this and she was enchanted, as befits Snow White. Many of our neighbors were waiting on their porches, enjoying the flow of kids in costume. It’s a tradition to cherish, even as rampant commercialization threatens to spoil it and everything else we celebrate.

Masking

But I have to wonder: How many of my neighbors understand what Halloween really is? The “een” part gives us a clue. “E’en” is a contraction for “evening,” as in the evening before. So many of these ancient holidays begin the night before. The actual event is the next day. Christmas Eve has always seemed to me one of the most magical nights of the Christian calendar. How many of my neighbors celebrate the day after Halloween?

Well, actually, quite a few. This is New Orleans after all. The next day used to be a holiday at the University and dammit, I took the day off. It should still be a holiday in my opinion. When I passed by St. Patrick #1 on a quick errand that morning I saw plenty of people tending their family crypts.

My main activity of the day was masking of a different sort: covering up some lead paint. There were two strips on either side of our porch, about one inch wide and maybe ten feet tall, which the painters missed. I’ve been meaning to address these areas for a couple years now, ever since I noticed them. I used duct tape to remove as many paint flakes as I could. Then I covered everything up with a thick coat of high-quality primer, and ultimately a topcoat of paint.

Given that these two strips face outward to the sides of the house, where we never spend any time, this was probably not a critical fix, but I certainly feel better now that it’s finally done. I’m confident the lead paint will stay contained for years, by which time Persephone will be past the most vulnerable phases of her development.

Ancestor’s Dinner

That night we shared a delicious family dinner. Corn and tomatoes with bread. Our special guest: Glenn Dee Petty, 1923-1990, Xy’s dear departed grandmother. The main dish was one which Xy remembers Glenn Dee preparing. We had a place set for her with a photo on display. As we ate, Xy shared various memories. Since Persephone never met any of her great-grandparents, this is the only way she can really come to know of them. For that matter I never met Glenn Dee either.

It was a festive and sweet moment. I think we will expand on this concept and do it again next year.

Unmasking

Several weeks ago, a friend and co-worker, Dr. Mark Gstohl, was planning to shut down his Facebook account. He was finding some of his interactions more aggravating than enlightening. He has a wide gamut of friends across the political spectrum, and he was experiencing a lot of negativity. I offered to swap accounts with him. At first I made the offer in jest, but I became more intrigued as I considered the idea, and so I offered again. We agreed to give it a try just for the month of October. We briefly discussed the ethics of such a maneuver, but the issues at stake didn’t seem very serious. So we went ahead. We continued to use Facebook as we usually did, but we were logged in to each others’ accounts. So, Mark (who is an ordained Baptist minister) was posting Bible verses in my name. Further muddying the waters is the fact that we both have numerous third party services tied into Facebook. We didn’t swap any other accounts, so both our Facebook feeds comprised a mix of items generated by one or other of us. At the end of the month we took off the masks and reverted back to our real selves. Most people laughed it off, or scratched their heads in confusion, but my old high school chum Georgie said she felt “betrayed and tricked.” Maybe we should have taken the ethical issues more seriously. For what it’s worth, I apologized to Georgie and I think she’s forgiven me. This episode raises some questions about identity and expectations in the age of social media.