Monday, October 23, 2006

"Take Back Your Time" Day

Tuesday, October 24th, is the fourth annual celebration of "Take Back Your Time" Day, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University and an initiative of The Simplicity Forum. If you haven't heard about it, it's probably because you've been too busy.

Americans pride themselves on being busy all the time. It's a national obsession. If you ask a simple "How are you?" of your co-workers or friends, most will answer, "Busy!" Many will answer, "Swamped!" But how many will say it with a hint of pride in their voices? We're a nation founded on Puritanical principles, so too much leisure time seems to make us a bit uneasy. We certainly work longer hours and take fewer vacations than our European counterparts. And we are a nation compelled to make certain that our children's time is fully scheduled with homework, sports practices, music lessons, summer camp, etc.

The Take Back Your Time folks think that enough is enough so they created an initiative "to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment."

If you think that sounds a bit dramatic, consider the most obvious results of no downtime: stress and fatigue, two factors that contribute to just about every health problem any of us might have. And, if we're stressed and exhausted, how do we relate to our spouse, partner, children? Probably not in an ideal way. If we're constantly running short of time, how often do we turn to fast food instead of preparing a meal we can share? If our kids' time is jam-packed with scheduled activities, when do they have time to dream, explore, and de-stress from their pressures? If we're always occupied or preoccupied by our work, how do we get to know our neighbors, create a feeling of community, or even just hang out with our family and friends or -- imagine! -- alone? Hang out. It sounds almost old-fashioned. When was the last time you did that? Not a rushed get-together where you're constantly checking your watch, not a forced family holiday meal, not a social event that was really a business "networking" opportunity. Just a chunk of time during which you did whatever you wanted to do. Sounds pretty luxurious, doesn't it?

Of course, some people aren't being "busy" or "swamped" by choice. Some of us need to work two jobs to earn enough to support a family. Or we're time-crunched because we're the caregivers for entire extended families, including kids, grandkids, and elderly parents -- and we may even have full-time jobs on top of that. Some people are extremely grateful to have a few scheduled activities for their children to help keep them off the dangerous streets. Some people are busy just trying to survive.

But if you're one of the lucky people who have a choice to take back some of your time because you've inadvertently become a part of the overworked, consumer-crazed rat race, this day is an opportunity for you to rethink your situation. So, when you're pondering what you'd do if you had, say, an extra hour every day that you could use for yourself, I'd like to suggest that you consider how much time you spend cleaning, collecting, storing or trying to navigate around all the excess stuff in your home. What if you had less stuff? Would you have more time? I can guarantee that you would. Less stuff always equals more time.

Check out my book, "Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff," for advice and personal anecdotes about letting go of clutter. I call it "un-stuffing." It's a good place to start to take back your time -- and your life.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend?

In 1953, Marilyn Monroe sang the Jules Styne and Leo Robin song, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," in the popular movie, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and the link between beautiful women and fabulous diamond jewelry was forever burned into our collective consciousness. Such is the power of film. But over fifty years later, we now know that there are a few things we need to consider about diamonds that most people weren't even remotely aware of in Marilyn's heyday. Recent news reminded me of those considerations.

On October 9th it was announced that a 4.2 ounce uncut diamond had been sold to the South African Diamond Corp. for $12 million. Called the Lesotho Promise, this 603 carat white gem ranks as the 15th largest diamond ever found. It will be cut into one large and several smaller stones, vastly increasing its value.

It is easy to figure out who will enjoy those spectacular finished diamonds: a few incredibly wealthy individuals. But I wondered who found that golf-ball-sized, uncut stone. Who works in that diamond mine? Who lives in Lesotho? What kind of lives do they lead?

When I heard the story of the diamond find on an NPR news segment, I didn't even have any idea where Lesotho was, other than somewhere in Africa. A quick perusal of available information provided the following facts:

Lesotho is a land-locked, mountainous enclave of South Africa. Slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, and formerly known as Basutoland, Lesotho gained its independence from the UK in 1966. It currently has political stability and has been governed by a parliamentary constitutional monarchy since 2002, although its previous history included military rule and violent protests. The population is a little over two million people. There is projected negative population growth, in part due to the AIDS epidemic that plagues much of the African continent. In Lesotho, 28.9% of the population has HIV or AIDS (2003 statistic). The economy is primarily based on subsistence agriculture and is currently being negatively affected by drought. The unemployment rate is 45% and 49% of the population live below the poverty line. Not a very pretty picture in Lesotho. The GDP is about $1.362 billion (2005), so that diamond find is significant -- the mine where the diamond was found is co-owned by a private company and the Lesotho government.

Many people have heard of "blood diamonds," now euphemistically renamed "conflict diamonds," in an effort to make them seem less horrific -- not unlike "global warming" being renamed "climate change." In December, the release of the motion picture, "Blood Diamonds" starring Leonardo DeCaprio, will undoubtedly inform many more. Once again, such is the power of film.

Blood diamonds are sold on the black market by rebel forces to raise money to fight legitimate governments, or to raise money for terrorists, including, perhaps, funding al Qaeda. The Kimberley Process was created in 2002 to prevent trade in blood diamonds through a voluntary documentation system that tracks the diamond from its discovery to its ultimate point of sale. The process, while still flawed, appears to have had some success in stemming the flow of blood diamonds into the commercial marketplace. Lesotho is a signatory nation and agrees to abide by the Kimberley Process, so if you are a fabulously wealthy person who ends up owning a diamond cut from the Lesotho Promise, you won't be buying a blood diamond.

Think this is more information than you need to know about diamonds? Sorry, but a thoughtful consumer must admit that in our complex, inter-related, global economy, every decision we make about purchasing an item connects us to that item's source. Shouldn't we at least make an effort to be aware of that source and the impact of our purchase?

If we do decide to purchase a diamond, we should know that it must be certified by the Kimberley Process. Making the process mandatory rather than voluntary would strengthen it -- can we help make that happen? We should remember that our diamond started as a rough hunk of rock in a mine in a distant country that may be suffering from an AIDs epidemic -- can we help? We need to be aware that the workers who struggled to get that rock out of the mine are most likely living in extreme poverty -- can we help? We need to understand that having the ability (the discretionary income) to purchase any beautiful piece of jewelry with even the tiniest, glittering, polished stone in it is an example of our incredible good fortune. With such good fortune, wouldn't it be apppropriate to ask a few questions about the source of that diamond, about the people who started the chain of events that allowed our jewelry to be created, and then ask ourselves, "Can we help?"

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, October 16, 2006

Paper Crisis

Those of you who have read my book know that my greatest nemesis is paperwork. I hate organizing papers, probably because I am so incredibly inept at it. I've come up with the best possible filing system (at least it's my version of the best possible filing system), but often I still get completely overrun by paperwork. Yesterday I was convinced that I needed another filing cabinet (don't even ask how many I already have). I've eliminated every bit of incoming paper I can by removing our names from the direct mail lists and by handling the household bills through a computer bill-paying service, but there was still a gargantuan stack of papers sitting around, waiting for me to do something with it.

Then it occurred to me that it was the doing part that had me bogged down, not the lack of storage space. In fact, I had half of one filing cabinet drawer that was empty and half of another drawer that had art supplies in it that could be moved elsewhere. So what is the problem? What keeps me from handling paper efficiently?

I (and perhaps you?) simply hang on to information far longer than is necessary. It is important to act on it in a timely matter or let it go. But it's the letting go that is sometimes very hard to do if you're trying to be "nice," or find things "interesting," or just want to "follow up" on something. This can be a deadly trap for those of us who are Organizationally Challenged and are usually already suffering from Stuff Overload. It can give us the illusion of control over our lives when in fact it creates a situation that quickly becomes out of control, i.e., piles of paper all over the place. Witness these few examples from my own stack of papers that I finally decided to tackle:

1. I found a notice I had kept about an acquaintance's retirement. I hadn't seen this woman for over ten years, but I enjoyed her company when our paths had crossed back then and I thought it would be nice to send her a card. She retired in August of 2004. I never sent the card. Let it go!

2. I found a catalog of the "rewards" offered by a credit card company for a card that we rarely use. It was dated Winter, 2005. The catalog is readily available on-line. We don't have enough points for a single reward. Let it go!

3. I found a menu for a lovely little cafe adjacent to a great antiques consignment shop where I had sold many of my smaller antiques during my major un-stuffing effort. I had intended to have a small tea party with friends at the cafe. The shop and cafe closed. Last year. Let it go!

I am embarrassed to say that I found many more outdated items as well as things that now need to be acted upon immediately because I let them languish in that stack of papers for so long. When I finally got to work on them, I ended up with a full bag of shredded paper and another bag of useless paper trash -- and plenty of room in my filing cabinets for what was left.

Conclusion? Don't assume that you just need to buy more organizing stuff to store the stuff you need to organize. If you dig into the stuff itself, you'll often find that you simply need to let it go.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Recycling Conundrum

The latest L.A. Times Sunday magazine, "West," devoted its entire Home Design Issue to "adaptive reuse," which refers to converting a previously commercial or industrial building to a living space. The magazine focused on seven radically reconceived homes that formerly had been a church, a water tower, a firehouse, a power station, a grocery store, a movie theater, and a Pullman railroad car. Each of these spaces had been cleverly altered, fashionably furnished (rather sparsely, I'm pleased to say), and, when completed, lovingly occupied by their new owners. I found the results very impressive.

I always appreciate the effort involved in saving old buildings and making them functional for the way we live and work now. It's a perfect combination of environmentally friendly reuse of resources and a respect for the unique history of the place. And I've noticed that it's become cool. Once again, I think the cool factor will help push forward an idea that is quite compatible with the concept of simplifying life by eliminating clutter. Like homes, cities can become cluttered, too, with old buildings and sometimes complete neighborhoods that are left to decay. Because it's wasteful, expensive, and often a loss aesthetically to demolish of a block of abandoned buildings, in most cases it's wiser and more practical to find a way to recycle these buildings and make them useful again.

But not always. Just as with some personal possessions, sometimes the cost of saving an old building is prohibitive. If it doesn't have historical significance, it may be better to demolish it, then replace it with something new and, perhaps, completely different. I'm a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so I tend to lean toward saving and adapting all that can be saved and adapted. I consider it an important part of our country's legacy. However, just as we must be thoughtful about the things that we save in our personal lives for ourselves and our families, it's important to be thoughtful about what we save in our public lives for society. Leaving behind "stuff" - buildings and monuments - as our only public legacy is as misguided as leaving behind nothing but the "stuff" we've personally accumulated over the years as a testament to the value of our lives.

A thought-provoking personal experience: I went to an art show opening not long ago at a charmingly retro cafe in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, where there's a vortex of loft/condo conversion activity. The bright little cafe was a shining beacon in an otherwise fairly scary-looking block consisting of single- and double-storey old business buildings and a parking lot. Across the street was a huge adaptive reuse building in which modestly-sized loft spaces were selling for well over a million dollars. But the neighboring block to the west I can describe only as the poster child for urban blight. It was horrifyingly bleak, decrepit, and filthy. Even worse, at the opposite end of the street, to the east, was a woman sleeping on the sidewalk, the totality of her possessions stacked in a grocery cart. Thankfully, we had parked our car right in front of the cafe. When we got in it to leave, we saw two huge rats foraging in the gutter across the street, ironically right at the underground parking entrance to the million-dollar loft building. I had nightmares for several weeks about that poor woman.

Of course we can spend our money on adaptive reuse of buildings and be pleased with our choice. Of course we can use our personal resources to acquire some lovely things to enjoy ourselves and someday leave behind for our families. But what about that woman? I'd also like to leave behind a contribution to society that would help eliminate the conditions that led her to live in such a tragically impoverished situation. I’d like to find a way to help "recycle" that woman and make her a functioning member of society again. I'd like to be remembered for what I did, not just what I bought.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob