Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

They're so small they seem to slip right away without your even noticing them: the little bit of catsup in the bottom of the bottle, the lonely heel at the end of the loaf of bread that lies around until it grows green with mold, the leftovers that get tossed into the trash when they're still perfectly edible. But over time, their cumulative effect is like a slow leak in a tire that eventually leaves it completely flat.

One of the things that really sticks in my mind about all my relatives who lived through the Great Depression is their ability to make sure those little bits and pieces got used up. Not just food, but everything: the crumb that's left when a bar of soap is almost used up, the last bit at the end of the roll of wax paper which is skinnier than what you need it to cover right now, you name it.

Why? Because in those desperate days, being able to squeeze every possible speck of use out of things often meant the difference between squeaking through and being left without an essential survival item. If you had no money, you couldn't just dash to the store when you ran out of something, so being able to make a passable tomato soup by putting water into the catsup bottle and loosening up those last clinging tablespoonfuls might well mean the difference between eating and going hungry that night.

As things grow tighter, it's time to think about where resources are slipping away unused and start getting hold of them. Every time you can eliminate a bit of waste, whether by keeping better track of perishables so they don't spoil before they're eaten or just learning ways to reuse leftover odds and ends, it's like having that much more money free to use on other things you may need.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Remembering to Learn from the Past

When I was young, I would often listen to my grandmother talk about surviving the Great Depression as a young farm wife in America's heartland. Sometimes the stories were funny, sometimes they were heartbreaking, but they were always a window onto another time.

After my grandmother passed away in 1995, I remarked to one of my history professors at Illinois State University that my greatest regret was that I'd never thought to record any of those stories for posterity. So what if she was just a farm wife, just one of many -- she'd still lived through a significant and tumultuous period of American history, and her experiences would help historians understand what it meant to the ordinary Joes and Janes who built this country and made it strong.

More recently, I was talking with some friends about the current economic crisis, and one of them made a comment that really struck a note with me. He said that there was no real reason to be so afraid of a new depression, since every one of us is here because our parents or grandparents survived the Great Depression.

But even as I agreed and talked about my own grandmother's experiences, I realized that a lot of this knowledge has been lost. How many of us still know those skills that allowed her to get her family through those hard times? How many young people know how to darn a sock, or pull some leftovers together with a few potatoes or a cabbage for a hearty meal?

But if some of us still remember, all of us can learn from those reminiscences and recover the skills we need to survive.