Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Defining Treasure

I've just returned to Los Angeles from my high school reunion in Denver. I spent a truly wonderful long weekend with friends, reminiscing about the past and catching up on current news. Some classmates I hadn't seen for far too many years, but the passage of time didn't matter once we were together. We were like kids again, delighted to be with each other and eager to enjoy our brief celebration.

No one talked about their cars or houses or antiques. No one flashed expensive jewelry or designer clothing to impress anyone else. "Stuff" was meaningless at this gathering. We talked about our families and careers, the joys of our lives and, on occasion, the challenges and the losses. We saw each other through the caring eyes of experience, sometimes with a little sympathy and understanding, often with admiration and respect. It was an example of true communion.

The weekend reminded me of the real meaning of the word "treasure:" 1. accumulated wealth; 2. something greatly valued.

If I had to trade all of my possessions in order to keep the friendship and love of the people I care about, I'd let everything go without a moment's hesitation. Possessions are just "stuff." The accumulated memories, the greatly valued feelings, the people are what matter.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Compulsive Hoarding

When people learn that I have written a book entitled, "Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff," many of them leap to the conclusion that I formerly lived in a catastrophic state of chaos and I now live in something resembling a Zen monastery. Neither description is accurate.

True, the various homes I've shared over the last twenty-five years with The Writer have been burdened by far too much stuff, especially when we both quickly ended up working at home. That meant that he, a writer/computer-and-technology-of-all-kinds-lover, and I, a writer/musician/artist, somehow had to cram together both our work-related stuff and our "regular" living stuff. Needless to say, there were enormous efforts to contain stray items in attractive wicker baskets and subsequent massive overflows into storerooms. My predilection for my formerly simple existence, not to mention my unswerving requirement for a certain level of cleanliness, made daily life a constant, frustrating battle for control over our situation. But, in spite of moments of despair, I doubt that even our worst conditions would have qualified us for one of those reality television clean up and makeover shows.

However, the situation was exhausting and eventually, something had to give. The sometimes amusing, often challenging process is covered in my book, but basically we learned to let go of many things that we would have kept had we lived in someplace the size of, oh, let's say the Hearst castle. We had to admit that those things were just…things. In our minds, they represented the people we inherited them from or the people who had given them to us or the times we remembered fondly, but we finally accepted the idea that we could part with the stuff and still treasure the memories.

Some people simply can't do that. They can't make distinctions between important or useful items and worthless junk. Even though they suffer greatly from living in homes that literally can look like garbage dumps, they are truly powerless to control their impulses to hoard. I wondered what could be done to help those unfortunate people who had not only given up the battle but had lost the war.

I was interested to read about the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation's new Compulsive Hoarding Website. Randy Frost, PhD, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, MA, and Gail Steketee, PhD, Associate Dean/Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, have put together some very helpful material for people who have a serious problem with hoarding. Information and scientific research about the issues pertaining to compulsive hoarding have been available only for about the past decade, and the problem appears to be more common than we might have expected. Drs. Frost and Steketee estimate that 700,000 to 1.4 million people in the United States may suffer from this syndrome. There are several aspects of the compulsive hoarder's personality that contribute to this condition, including difficulty making decisions and, perhaps surprisingly, perfectionism. The result is an unlivable environment with unhappy, sometimes clinically depressed occupants.

So, if you (or someone you know) have an accumulation of stuff that is completely out of hand and you're truly unable to let go of anything, you may need more help than my book, or any other author's organizing books, can offer. Please take a moment to look at this website – and don’t give up hope!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Times They Are A'Changin'

Occasionally, I am terminally "girl." The publication of the fall Vogue magazine is one of those occasions. I buy the huge, heavy thing almost every year to see what is going on in the world of fashion, although it's a world I find fairly mystifying. As an artist, I appreciate the creative merits of certain designs and the talent of many designers. But the need to follow hemline lengths, the required presence or total banishment of shoulder pads, and whatever color has been dubbed the season's "new black" always eludes me, as my friends will readily attest. This fall issue, however, had a couple of items worth noting.

The first item that caught my eye was an advertisement for Keds with a headline that read, "Cool is less materialism, more material." The ad copy was about how it's no longer cool to want more of everything and how "the tide has turned" so that quality, not quantity is what's important. "More stuff, less space" is now passe. Imagine my surprise and delight! Also, it's very tricky to advertise something in a way that makes it so appealing that readers will want to buy it, while sending an anti-stuff message at the same time. I must admit, well done, Keds ad company. If I didn't already have my stock of Keds, I'd be tempted to buy more. And it is rather entertaining to be accidentally trendy!

Even more interesting to me was an article by William Norwich entitled "better to give," (all lower case, which is so much more modest) with a subtitle, "A warm-fuzzy mood is sweeping the blessed-by-fortune set: Ostentation is out; charity is in." How fabulous! Apparently rich people no longer want to flash their wealth for all to admire and are eager to share some of it, too. Warren Buffet's "breathtaking" (no kidding!) $31 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation is considered "the most elegant moment" of the year and the primary topic of conversation at tony dinner parties from the Hamptons to the south of France. Buffet has always been a down-home kind of guy, a Midwesterner with no desire to flaunt his enormous wealth. But what about all those "social x-rays," as Tom Wolfe called them, and the handsomely attired spouses and escorts that squire them to galas across the globe? This change in the winds must require a radical reconceptualizing shift for many of them.

The wisdom of age (honestly, you've got to get something to compensate for everything else that you lose) has convinced me that the best way to instigate social change is to make your agenda cool. If you want to make the point that acquiring more and more stuff is ultimately not a good idea for either people or the planet, don't keep harping on the evils of accumulating possessions; make it cool to have less. Make it cool to live with empty spaces here and there in your home. Make it cool to have a smaller wardrobe. Make it cool to buy a hybrid car.

Vogue is a magazine with ads for pricey items like $20,000 watches, and with a business model demanding that its readers be enticed to purchase new clothing and accessories on a regular basis. The article about charitable giving by the wealthy makes it clear these benefactors are not going to go bankrupt as a result of their generosity, or skip the haute couture shows in Paris. But I must give Vogue a cheer for presenting the idea that the new cool embraces the concept that less is more. In its own ostentatious way, Vogue ironically wants us to be thoughtful consumers!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob