Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Annals of Thrift: Waiting for the World To Change

A few days ago, I was sitting at my computer, minding my own business and either playing a game or watching yet another episode of Legend of the Seeker (I have now worked my way through the entire first season, and I have still not seen Craig Horner's unclothed backside. What a world.) when b&c appeared in the doorway to the study and began an unsolicited rant on the failures of the Obama administration. I will spare you the details, but in essence, he is annoyed that President Obama has been in office for several months and has not yet solved all the nation's and the world's problems. (I want a golden goose, Daddy! I want it now!) I mostly ignored the rant: b&c gets into petulant child mode very easily when something (usually, as in this case, not the thing he's complaining about) is bothering him, and there isn't any point in trying to reason with him once he's in that mode. Everyone gets that way once in a while. I, for example, was in petulant child mode for a good forty-five seconds as recently as May. Of 2006. But b&c is in petulant child mode five or six times a week, so I reckon it all evens out.

My sense is that b&c's disappointment comes in large part from the near hopelessness of the situation that existed at the changing of administrations. When things have gotten that bad, and there's a change in leadership, people want to believe that there's going to be a fundamental change in direction and that it's going to yield dramatic results immediately. But, then, of course, when it comes time to actually govern, it turns out that change -- at least in a mature democracy -- has to be incremental. Even if there's a new mindset, details get worked out slowly.

I've experienced an analogous disappointment recently. I had hoped that the financial crisis would provide, along with all the devastation, an opportunity for a general rethinking of values. I envisioned a world, or at least a significant segment of a society, where people would come to value their interpersonal relationships more. And the almighty dollar less. But old habits die hard, and while many people may be able to afford less, it seems that they're affording less of the same old things. I hoped for an increase in canasta parties and quilting circles. I got The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Thanks, Bravo.

I suppose that denial and escapism are easier than fundamental change, so I'm not especially surprised at the way things are shaping up. And the situation is, of course, fluid. But it's sad to see an opportunity wasted. Naturally, I blame Timothy Geithner. If the Treasury Department addresses the worst financial crisis in decades by working with the existing powers to give us something that leaves us in more or less the same position, only poorer, it's not surprising when everyone else follows suit.

Incrementalism isn't always a bad thing, anyway, provided that you make the changes in the right direction. If everybody reduces his or her energy consumption by five percent, it adds up to a lot. Similarly, if everyone reduces his consumer debt and increases personal savings, it is, in total, a big deal.

Besides, living off the grid (the revolutionary approach) isn't really an option for me these days, so I'm making my own incremental changes. Beginning with turning off the TV when The Real Housewives of New Jersey comes on. It's possible that there's a fine line between guilty pleasure and indefensible cultural atrocity, but in this case the line isn't so fine and was crossed a while back. In any case, many of the incremental changes on the long road to thrift are changes that require time.

For example. This weekend I clarified some butter:

Clarifying butter doesn't really take all that long to do, but in this case, it was the first step towards giving up microwave popcorn. You can't pop corn in butter as it comes from the store because the milk solids will burn. But if you clarify the butter, you can use three tablespoons of it to turn a half-cup of unpopped kernels into a gallon of delicious, butter-flavored popcorn. And the only equipment you need is a heavy pot. (Alton Brown manages it with nothing more than a stainless steel bowl and some aluminum foil, but I find his method clumsy.)

A gallon of delicious, butter-flavored popcorn (you can make less) is just the thing to have when you're watching a movie in your own home with friends or family. I suppose you could also serve it at a canasta party or to your quilting circle, but while the popcorn doesn't seem greasy, you'd probably want to wash your hands before picking up your cards or your quilting needle.

Speaking of needles, one of my dress shirts recently bit the dust:

In the past, I would probably simply have thrown it away, but I figured I should find some way to repurpose it. I considered trying to turn it into handkerchiefs (it would have made nice ones), but the sort of stitchery required to make a handkerchief is beyond my capabilities. And if it weren't beyond my capabilities, I still wouldn't consider making one a good use of my time.

But an increase in picnic activity (if it ever stops raining around here) is definitely in keeping with the new thrift, and I would very much like to have a picnic quilt. Especially a picnic quilt where one side features my old shirts. Which are legion. So I cut the back panel out of my shirt, and I cut it into strips. And I have enough strips for about one-twentieth of a quilt.

No one said incrementalism was easy. I'll keep you posted on the progress, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

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