I have been unable to work up a proper interest in serious issues - of which there are so many - since the Senate passed their health care reform proposal on Christmas Eve. Is it winter doldrums, perhaps? A break from information overload? Or maybe after months of closely following Congress on health care and a long weekend of hysterical finger-pointing over a bomb that fizzled, I'm fed up with lawmakers, pundits and news in general.
With the start of a new year and the new beginnings we imagine for ourselves when the calendar turns, my thoughts have been on practical issues over which I can have at least some personal control.
There is a commercial running on television referring to that terrific little oomph you get when you've found a new way to save some money. Since I don't remember the product being advertised, it's not an effective commercial (I suspect it is Target or Walmart), but I am familiar with that rush of self-satisfaction when I've saved a few dollars.
Last month, I received a letter from the local power company reducing my equal monthly payments by just over 14 percent. Woo-hoo. Okay, it amounts to only about $100 a year, but it's $100 I didn't have before and with the savings that continue from the weatherizing and other minor fixes I made myself last year at little expense, my electric bill is down now by a third since the winter of 2007/08. I am quite pleased with myself.
Most of that savings is from having permanently turned off the six-foot baseboard heater in my laundry/storage room in winter, using a small space heater instead and being hyper-vigilant about turning it on only when the room temperature sinks to 45 degrees F.
Perhaps the CFL bulbs have helped too. That's not to say I like them; actually, I despise CFLs. It's hard to read by them, the light is unattractive and the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent bulb does not give off nearly as much light.
LEDs may improve lighting and still be green, but it appears there is a long time to go before they are commercially available and affordable.
In regard to the bigger picture, being green in these small ways can seem to be futile. After all, how much difference could my light bulbs make in reducing carbon emissions? So I choose to believe that if each of us does a few little things to help, it adds up for the betterment of life on planet Earth. (That's when I'm having a good day, not to be confused with every day.)
Trying to be greener is a never-ending learning experience - or, in the case of us old folks, re-learning the ways of our parents in our childhoods. My mother was careful about heating. When I complained of being cold, she told me to put on a sweater and it works just as well now as it did 60 years ago.
This winter, I've reduced the daytime thermostat to 65 degrees from 67 last winter. That's not teeshirt comfortable but with the addition of a sweater, I can't tell the difference from a fine day in June. My fuel oil company tells me that just a two-degree temperature reduction will save – well, I've forgotten, but it is a nice chunk of change in the fuel bill and I'll see how much I've saved or not come spring.
A few days ago, I came across a remarkable little website called AltUse – alternative uses for everyday products. A sampling:
• Hairspray will remove ink stains from hard surfaces. It's also good for stopping the itch of mosquito bites.
• Toothpaste will remove scratches that cause old CDs to skip. It too will stop mosquito bites from itching.
• Rubbing with a cloth dipped in white vinegar will clean stains off non-stick cookware.
• An abrasive cloth dipped in Coca-Cola will remove most rust stains.
• Vodka will clean grout and kill mold.
In fact, there are 13 uses (in addition to drinking) listed for vodka, 16 for toothpaste that do not involve teeth and a whopping 60 for vinegar.
Few of these are new ideas and in perusing the website, I found myself frequently thinking, “I know that; my mother did these things.” But the point is, I haven't used most of them and the site is a good reminder to do so, along with being a reference to consult.
The suggestions are the collective wisdom of readers who send in alternative uses for ordinary products. A few are are just silly – making a handbag from Venetian blind slats and weaving plastic shopping bags into storage containers – but well, to each his own. There is a rating system for the alternative uses that ranges from five stars to “did not work” but it's not much in use yet.
The site is a little rough around the edges visually and could use a navigation upgrade, but there is value. In addition to helping out individuals and the planet, the site owners (one is currently an assistant public defender in Cook County, Illinois) are both former marketers who say they believe all products should have at least ten alternative uses.
“AltUse.com,” they write, “offers a catalyst for change in the business world by challenging the notion of marketing products for one specific purpose. We seek to increase manufacturing efficiency and product quality, while cutting down on unnecessary waste.”
What's your favorite alternative use for a product we are all likely to have in a cupboard?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mickey Goodman: The Last Dance