Monday, January 30, 2012

Rational Lessons

Last October I gave a program one Sunday morning as a follow-up to the rationing year. What follows is the text of that program.

--Rational Mama


Good morning!

Okay. So the last time I stood up here for any appreciable amount of time was in late January 2010. On that brisk Sunday morning I shared the story of how me and my family (including my Linkhusband TMOTH, and our two daughters, Sissy and Eowyn) had chosen to live on WWII civilian rations for 1 year. It was our attempt to live our beliefs of responsible consumption and sustainable living. As I said back then, “[T]his experiment is about learning how much you're willing to change to make a change. What if you dared to only consume what you needed, and then as fairly as possible at that?” Our goal was, by the end of the rationing year, to have a better understanding of our needs vs. wants, so that we could re-prioritize our family resources to be more in line with our desires to live a more ethical lifestyle. By adopting a tried and true system that literally millions had followed (and survived!), we were confident that the rationing system would be free of the shortsightedness and mistakes of any green-living program we created for ourselves.

At the time of my last presentation we were merely one month into our year-long project. Now, I stand before you nearly 19 months later, and a full 10 months since our experiment ended, ready to give you the rundown and share our amazing insights gained during those months. I am also fully aware that today’s presentation serves as a sequel, and sequels are rarely as interesting as their predecessors with, of course, the exception of the Star Trek (Wrath of Kahn) and Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back) franchises.

With that in mind…"Rationing, a historical frontier. These are the challenges of the Rational Living family. Their 12 month mission: to explore strange new food combinations, to seek out reduced consumption and mindful living, and to boldly go where no American family has gone befo…well, since 1945.” Okay, seriously, moving on…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…Americans rationed. From 1942 to 1945 a complex system, implemented by the Office of Price Administration, determined how much Americans could consume. Restrictions ranged from the more industrial (gasoline, rubber, appliances) to the personal (food, coffee and shoes). As wartime needs changed, so did rationing allotments - the availability of certain rationed items fluctuated considerably during this period.

Our own rationing system was set up to duplicate (or provide modern-day equivalents for) the WWII civilian structure. For example, the historical example would give our family 11 gallons of gasoline per week. But, once we considered the increased fuel efficiency of our modern vehicles and the average miles per gallon of vehicles back then and crunching numbers…blah, blah, carry the one…came up with a modern ration of 193 miles per week between our two vehicles. For the rationing year all of our shopping, entertainment, school and vacation driving had to fit within that limit.

When it came to food items were rationed in different ways; points per item or a set amount per person were the most common approaches. For our experiment our household was allotted two pounds of sugar per week, which sounds like a sizable sum until you remember that prepackaged sweets were not allowed during the project, due to historical accuracy.

Household coffee was limited to two pounds every five weeks. That’s the equivalent of one cup of coffee per adult, per day.

Canned goods, frozen produce (what little was available in the 1940s) and dried beans were rationed on a green point system. In general, the more processed or exotic an item was, the higher the amount of rationing points were required to purchase said item. Thus, dried beans cost relatively few rationing points, while a bottle of ketchup (that holy among holy for children) would cost our family nearly all of our green points for the week.

Cheese, fats, oils and meat (specifically, pork and beef) were rationed separately from canned goods, but they were all part of their own red point system.

Not all foodstuffs were rationed during WWII: eggs, grains and fresh vegetables and fruit were spared from rationing, but were subject to seasonally availability and unpredictable shortages. Game meat, poultry and fish were not rationed in the 1940‘s because they were local offerings. Since poultry and fish are just as easily attainable nowadays at your grocery store as pork and beef, we decided to include them in our red point system.

To simulate the unpredictable availability of both rationed and non-rationed items during WWII we created a simple, but effective system that mimicked these fluctuations. Every week we pulled situations and items out of a bag (the number of which was dictated by the role of a die) and had to accommodate those changes for the entire week. So, with little advance warning, we might find that the points required to purchase canned corn or beef had doubled, or that there was a flour or sugar shortage.

We added a few self-imposed restrictions in spirit of the program: since I had read that ration points were required for restaurant meals, we decided that eating out at restaurants would be limited to only once a month as a family. During the week we were scheduled to have our dinner out, our ration point allotments for that week would be decreased by a comparable amount.

Whew, that’s a lot of history and guidelines! Well, I’m here to tell you the ups and downs of our year-long attempt to live our beliefs by living in the past…er…on within the guidelines of the historical rationing system. Now remember, our desire to complete this project wasn't out of some longing for historical reenactment or to legitimize our love of the The Glenn Miller Orchestra. Instead, it was to experience a life adapted by changing ingrained behaviors to better reflect our desires to reduce our consumption of precious resources and to gain a better understanding of what were our needs, rather than just wants. So, really, the lessons we learned could really apply to any attempt to live one’s convictions. As such, I pulled out what I think are the 7 most important lessons we learned that could apply to anyone attempting. (Why seven? Because I started with 10 and exceeded my time limit)

Here goes.

Lesson #1: When living your beliefs, you may find that your beliefs are, indeed, not based on facts.

I spent the better part of two months researching WWII rationing in order to determine our proper allotments and guidelines for the various restrictions we would be experiencing over the course of the rationing year. Hours were spent clicking through online resources and spinning through microfilm reels at the library. After pages of notes and calculations I felt confident that we had a working (and historically accurate) system in place.

However, during our 3rd week a nagging suspicion drove me to double check some figures. Sure enough, I found that due to an error in my notes I had miscalculated our green (or canned goods) allotment; where we had been living quite comfortably with a total of 192 green points per week, our actual true allotment was…only 48 green points per week. Needless to say, menu planning became much more interesting after that discovery.

Another “Aha!” moment came during our fourth month of the rationing project. Earlier in the year we had no problem with the dining-out restriction - it was like we were some bad-ass non-eating out ninjas who could quickly and silently whip up an easy dinner in the chaos of the day. Only a half-hour to eat between getting home and piano lessons? No problem! Running errands that conflict with lunch time? Simple - just grab some snacks to tide you over until we eat a real meal at home.

Yeah, that was so February. By April we'd definitely experienced a backslide in this category. An extra dinner out. Grabbing a quick sandwich while out shopping. I was beginning to feel guilty about this slide, since we were reducing our allotted rationing points on the weeks we went out, so future purchases were affected. So, I dug and dug further into the historical tomes and finally found this quote from a 1945 newspaper article:

OPA regulations state that all persons who consume eight or more meals a week in a restaurant, hotel dining room, hospital or institution…shall surrender their ration books to the owner or operator of such places of business, and stamps will be removed…

What? What? Eight meals out per week? Who the heck does that? Definitely not us. After that epiphany, eating out was so ON. Moral of this story? A little fact-checking never hurt anyone.


Lesson #2 Living your beliefs will be liberating, but will most likely be uncomfortably restricting at times.

Man, oh man…never did 193 miles seem like such a small distance as it did during rationing.

True, many weeks we were under that limit and able to hoard some of those miles into the next week. But, in general, nearly all trips - whether for shopping or entertainment - were evaluated for necessity. Suddenly, our favorite Tex-Mex joint on the south side of town became too far away, and the girls’ out-of-town swim meets made for some interesting weeks which would not have been possible without our “rollover” miles. In the end, our family traveled just over 10,000 miles during the rationing year, which was right on track (almost down to the mile) with our allotment. That’s a lot of miles, but it’s still nearly 14,000 less than (or less than ½ of) the national average for a family of our size. Being able to see the big picture perspective can make it easier to accept the restrictions required to live within your principles.


Lesson #3 Murphy’s Law still applies while living your beliefs.

Murphy’s Law of “whatever can go wrong, will,” never takes a break. During our year of rationing both our oven and propane grill died. Due to the increased demand for metal during the war, new appliances (such as ovens, refrigerators and washing machines) were hard to come by during rationing. In fact, you basically had to apply for an appliance purchase. Unable to purchase new equipment (and not thrilled with our “used” options) we were lucky enough to secure the needed parts to repair both the oven and grill and keep them working for the next several years.

The biggest snafu that had us shaking our fists skywards toward the gods concerned the issue of attempting a summer with no air-conditioning. Since household air-conditioning as we know it was extremely rare in the 1940’s it seemed only logical that skipping the A/C during rationing year would not only be historically appropriate but also be a great way to reduce our energy consumption and costs. Plus, the decision gave us the final kick in the pants needed to install a whole house fan (using a used fan salvaged by my dad).

Let me remind you that the summer of 2010 was a scorcher - not quite as bad as what we had this year (thank goodness), but it was the hottest summer in well over a decade. It was hot. And humid. While the whole house fan helped, we found it tempting to run it for longer periods, just to keep a breeze stirring in the house. Bedtime meant cool-down baths and strategically placed fans…and sweating. Eventually, it got to the point where the heat was affecting our ability to sleep, since bedtime temperatures in the house (even with the assistance of the attic fan) were hovering around 90 degrees. In an effort to find coping mechanisms, I spoke with “old-timers” who had made it through the 40’s without A/C. They explained that some folks had window swamp coolers, and lots of houses still used sleeping porches (we had neither). They also explained that, during those horrendous days of summer, societal expectations changed - work shifts were altered, expectations were lowered; people just didn't do much. Not having that flexibility and faced with another night of sweaty, pathetic sleep, we finally caved at 3 o’clock in the morning one day late June. The air-conditioning was back on.

We were excited when the utility bill arrived a few weeks later, eager to see how much our sweat and discomfort had saved the pocket book. Total savings? Zero. Why? The dehumidifier in the basement. Without the air-conditioner running and acting as a dehumidifier for the entire house, the basement dehumidifier (necessary to keep the moisture level bearable in the basement of our 100 year old house) had to work overtime. It basically never got a break the entire time that we were stuffing ice down our shirts and playing in the sprinklers. Needless to say, the air-conditioner stayed on for rest of the summer.


Lesson #4 Living your beliefs can be hard to swallow (literally) at times.

When it came to historic meals during the rationing project there was the good (SPAM burgers, victory pancakes and maple pudding), the bad (sausage loaf, cabbage del Monaco), and the ugly. Nothing portrays the ugly of rationing meals more for our family than liver. Since low-quality cuts and organ meats were considerably lower in rationing points meals during WWII often incorporated these items. One brave day in February I decided that it was liver day. Glenn had had some nasty run-ins with liver as a youth, so he was less than thrilled. Myself and the girls had never had liver before, so this was going to be a new experience. I think my blog post following liver night reports it well:

Sissy, ever the enthusiastic carnivore, took the first bite. She quickly spit it back out, saying it was too lemony and tasted a little strange. The piece of liver spent such a short time in her mouth I was doubtful if she really got the full flavor.

Eowyn, always a bit more reserved around meat, fondled a piece of liver in her mouth and then spit it out. Party pooper.

TMOTH was next. Like a champion he put an honest bite into his mouth and began to chew. After two chews his eyes became all squinty. After three chews his mouth was grimacing, apparently in a wrestling match with his mind. On the fourth chew the mind won and out came the liver.

Friends, I feel like I should tell you that chewed, cooked liver looks like cat-sick.

I was the only one left. Talk about peer pressure. I was ready to prove them all wrong. I put a good nickel-sized piece of liver in my mouth. I was pleasantly surprised by the texture; the wet tissue paper of raw liver had been replaced by a tender meat, very similar to chicken fried steak. Another bite and I could taste the lemony-bacon sauce. Salty and tangy at the same time. Mmm... This wasn't bad at all. I committed to the chewing - this piece was awesome and was going to make it all the way down unlike the other losers at the table. Four chews. Five chews. What a bunch of pansies, they couldn't keep the liver in their mouths for more than -

OH MY HELL, WHAT IS THAT TASTE?

Why does it taste like burning plastic in my mouth? Did a chewing-activated enzyme just turn my piece of food into motor oil? What is going on?

Friends, my piece of liver became reacquainted with my plate.

At some point, sticking to your beliefs is going to leave a bad taste in your mouth (either literally or figuratively). But don’t worry, it will pass.


Lesson #5 It IS possible to go too far in living your beliefs (but a trip there just might be what you need).

By early September - over eight months into our program year - rationing was, well…kinda boring. I had memorized the regular point values for our most used items, there were many weeks worth of Victory menus to choose dinners from and we had been able to stock up on most staples so as to avoid any negative impacts from sudden shortages. The rationing life was kinda…normal. The challenge was sort of…gone. Rather than sit back and relax for the remaining two and a half months, though, I had this idea…

See, one of the regular visitors on our blog about the rationing project was Jamie - Jamie lives in the U.K. and was following the U.K. ration system from WWII for (what was initially) three months. His little experiment happened to overlap in time with our own rationing project. We had a good time comparing and contrasting our respective rations and how our countries’ palates adapted to what was available. But there was no question that Jamie’s rations were more restrictive; as complicated as rationing was in the U.S. during WWII there is no doubt that our allies across the pond had it much, much worse. Not only were U.K. rations more restrictive and meager, but they experienced more frequent and lasting shortages (not to mention the bombings).

Their period of rationing was also significantly longer than that experienced in the U.S. Whereas U.S. rationing lasted for the better part of three years (roughly 1942 to 1945), rationing in the U.K. lasted a whopping 14 years (1940 to 1954).

So it only seemed fair that during our own year-long rationing program that we honor those allies who had it much worse than us. I mean seriously honor them - not just go with a "Look, I made a Woolten Pie" kinda thing. Which is why we decided to give U.K. WWII rations a try for two weeks in October.

I corresponded back and forth with Jamie to make sure I would be working with accurate rations. After all - so much more was rationed and in tighter amounts that I wanted to make sure we were giving it an honest go. Even grains like rice and oatmeal, and everyday items like fresh milk, cereal, eggs and soap were rationed. As a result, rationing diets in the British Isles relied heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables, with potatoes and breads being used as fillers. There was no doubt that all of our usual rations (and then some) took a major hit when we switched to the U.K. system. I mean, there wasn’t even a coffee ration.

It also took significantly more of my time and energy to organize shopping lists and points and to come up with appetizing, nutritiously balanced meals that the girls would eat.

Just a few days into the first week of U.K. rations and it became clear that, without non-rationed fillers like potatoes, U.K. rations provided just enough, just enough, food to get by on. Even though we were providing the girls with solid lunches and often skimping on our servings at breakfast and dinner so that they could have more, they needed snacks every night because of hunger. Genuine hunger. And we could only provide them meager snacks at best. TMOTH and I often went to bed hungry.

On day six of U.K. rations TMOTH and I were driving home from an errand, when he said quietly, “I’m hungry.” "Me, too," I replied. I thought about how many times the four of us had said those words during the past six days. I'd heard it from the girls more than once each day we'd been on U.K. rations. I thought about hearing it for another eight days. Having your patient children look at you with their big eyes, informing you that they are yet again hungry (because of a choice you made) is enough to break any parent’s heart.

"Maybe six days is enough," I said.

We had learned our lesson. What the civilians of the United Kingdom dealt with was far beyond the situation handed to the Americans. As Sissy put it, "They [in the U.K.] had only what was needed, but in the U.S. we could also get things we wanted."

So that evening we picked the girls up from their grandparents and told them that we were done with U.K. rations. They actually cheered. They were happy to be back on U.S. rations.


Lesson #6: Your beliefs might actually change.

I did a lot of soul searching after the U.K. ration experiment. Understanding at a deeper level what the people of the United Kingdom went through for the better part of 14 years made the U.S. system look like a walk in the park. And knowing that there are still plenty of people in the world today that subsist on government-imposed or humanitarian provided rations (if lucky) made our rationing program…well, it made it seem a bit of a bourgeois joke. Look at us, well-funded Americans choosing to “rough it” on a system that stifles our choices but still provides more than enough nourishment. I felt uncomfortable, almost ashamed, of what we were doing. The only way to justify our rationing experience, to make it have meaning, was to go back to the beginning.

As I said during that January morning when I stood here, “[T]his experiment is about learning how much you're willing to change to make a change. What if you dared to only consume what you needed, and then as fairly as possible at that? And what if your changes made a measurable difference? And those now surplus resources were somehow redirected to create change where it is needed?”

Line drying your clothes can make a difference. Driving less miles can make a difference. Changing the way you consume resources can make a difference…IF you seize those opportunities redistribute your resources.

This was our time to wake up and realize that our choices do matter and can make a difference.

By the end of the rationing project we had a contract on a modest (less than 1000 sq ft) home on just enough acreage to support a large family garden. We moved in in March, and our old house, (a century-old charmer with over 1600 sq. ft.) in the middle of town sold a few months later.

You see, we’d rather redistribute our own resources, moving them away from commercialized, process food sources and grow and preserve our own. We’d prefer to spend our money supporting humanitarian goals, rather than stuffing the pockets of global companies with questionable ethics.

To us, this also means not eating meat that comes out of the industrial animal farming system.

Remember, the main catalyst for the rationing project was a desire to live a more environmentally conscious and sustainable lifestyle. The rationing year was an attempt to move beyond the "easy" practices of recycling and cloth napkins and to dig deeper into ingrained practices and habits that needed changing. Our goal was to find changes that could and should be made to reduce our carbon footprint and create a lifestyle that had a less harmful effect on people and the planet. By the end of the rationing year we had to be honest with ourselves and admit that there was really nothing about the large-scale, industrial farming of animals that justified it being a part of that kind of lifestyle. Period.

At the end of the rationing project our plan was to eliminate industrial meat from our household- this means no meat from grocery store or restaurants. Meat that we have a personal relationship with is different; venison from TMOTH’s hunting or chicken we raise, slaughter and process well, that’s fair game (no pun intended) because utmost thought has been put into all the steps necessary to bring that meat from the field to the table.

This is a big change for us, and while we haven’t been 100% on track with this tenant since the end of the rationing program, we’re moving in the right direction.


Lesson #7 Living your beliefs is best done within a supportive, nurturing community.

There is absolutely no way that our family could have stayed committed the entire 12 months of the rationing project without the help of our supporters - our rationing community. Our church was a big part of this, providing a forum to share our story and an opportunity to expand the dialogue outside of our household. Three church families donated space for our Victory Gardens, several church families offered us excess produce to preserve, while another church regular donated a spare pressure canner to the cause. While there on Sunday mornings folks would regularly check in and ask how the project was going, or comment on a recent blog post. You kept us going through your encouragement, your questions, your generosity and support.

I mean, let’s face it - no matter how good your intentions there will always be haters and skeptics. And the rationing project had its fair share. An acquaintance couldn’t wrap her head at all around the concept of our chosen restrictions. “You must be really bored,” she wrote to me, “that’s the only reason I can think of as to why you would choose to go with all those restrictions and point tracking. Bored, or crazy.” Some out-of-town relatives, perplexed at the rationing project as a whole, made it clear that the scarcity of miles allowed by the project was “a silly way to decide whether or not you’re coming to visit.” And others made it clear that our decision to lean towards vegetarianism was, in their opinion, a poorly constructed plan. “What happens if you just really want to go to Red Robin?” they threw out, as if that was the nail in the coffin to that argument (it wasn’t - I informed them that any of Red Robin’s burgers can be made with a veggie burger if requested at ordering).

I’m not trying to pick a fight. What I am trying to do is remind you that some people will be so completely unnerved and threatened by your ability to live your beliefs (heck, to even have beliefs in the first place), that they will say and do some hurtful things in response.

But if you gather around you a community of like-minded, supportive individuals you will have many hands to hold you up (and many shoulders to cry on when the going gets tough).

WWII civilian rationing didn’t happen in a vacuum - it was part of a larger, national initiative that included war bonds, resource drives and pulled in help from the full gamut of society - veterans, housewives, school children and institutions such as newspapers, movie studios, schools and both big and small business. Only when they worked together were they able to get the American public behind wartime restrictions.

And only with the help from our friends, especially our community at church, was the rationing project possible.



So, there you have it - seven tips for living your beliefs, as learned during our rationing project. In January of 2010 I said, “A year from now I imagine we’ll have a much better understanding of our wants and needs. We’ll have an idea of how our purchases fit into the larger world, and how, buy being conscious about those purchases, we can limit the unintended harm and maximum the positive potential of those purchases.” I think that’s true - we came out of the project much more thoughtful consumers.

I also said, “…I'm 100% certain that there will be moments of weakness and regret, but all the good adventures have those, right?” Moments of weakness, for sure we had those. But regrets? Hmm…there were things we could have done differently, for sure. It was a year of challenges, learning and inconvenience. But regrets? What comes to mind is a quote from the honorable Bob Dylan that I have tacked to my cubicle wall at work: “People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.”

We have nothing to repent for the rationing project, no regrets.

Near the end of the rationing year people began asking us what changes or project we would be undertaking during 2011. I sometimes had an internal visceral reaction to these well-meaning questions. I mean, hadn’t we done enough? We completely restructured and reduced our household consumption for an entire year. We became quasi-vegetarians and reduced our household footprint by 40%. We were done with projects for a while.

But I’d like to turn that question back to you. What project are you willing to undertake for the next year? How will you put your beliefs into action? With a little planning and a lot of support, you can do it.

Thank you.

5 comments:

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing! I did a one week challenge where I subsisted on SNAP benefit rations - nothing near a year of WWII rations. Thanks for the details - this was a great read.

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  2. Very good read. All the time and effort you put into the project is mind-blowing. I'm amazed at what you can do when you have the self-discipline and perseverance like you have. By the way, I'm still a bit jealous of your acreage,garden, and chickens. I would love to live similarly!

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  3. Thanks for posting this-- I missed the service and have wondered about it a few times. You are inspiring.

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  4. The lifestyle you are building reminds me of my family's when I was little. More people should become more rational.
    This year I plan on making some of my own clothing and starting my first solo vegetable garden.

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    Replies
    1. Yomi, those are great places to start!

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