Sunday, November 26, 2006

Shopping for Joy

Apparently many of us pushed our chairs back from the Thanksgiving feast, caught a few winks, then bundled the entire family into the car and headed to the local mall where we thought it made sense to wait in line for several hours to get into the stores that chose to open at 3 a.m. Here in Los Angeles, police had to be called to at least one location where a fight had broken out in line. I would not be surprised to learn that other sleep-deprived yet determined shoppers elsewhere had to deal with surly or downright physically hostile fellow crowd members as they all eagerly anticipated storming the gates and grabbing their bounty.

Have we lost our minds completely? I'm in favor of getting a bargain, but this seems extreme, not to mention dangerous. Do you want to risk getting punched in the nose, or worse, just so you can get that PlayStation Three? On the other hand, earlier today I watched an eBay auction for one close at $1,175.00 -- obviously it was purchased by somebody who chose to sleep late on Black Friday. But would this buyer's life, or his child's, be ruined if he didn't get one by Christmas? Spoken like someone who doesn't have kids, I've been told. True. I don't feel the holiday pressures for presents that many parents do. Still, I am deeply troubled by this level of desperate acquisitiveness.

Another disturbing fact is that the "status shopping" mentality is starting to kick in at a progressively younger age. In the Friday, November 24th issue of the L.A. Times, Alana Semuels wrote a column entitled, "Gucci and Prada for the under-13 Crowd." According to her research, tweens, i.e. kids from the ages of eight to twelve, "...are expected to contribute to the growing demand for luxury goods this winter." Tweens want luxury goods! The article continues, "Designer apparel represents about 9% of teenage clothing purchases... far greater than the percentage just a few years ago." I wonder how many adult, working women have 9% of their wardrobes devoted to designer apparel.

There's nothing new about kids wanting to be "cool" and believing that they need certain things to achieve that goal. But for kids to want expensive designer items, they must be exposed to advertising, television and movie stars, musicians and other performers that instill those desires. We're living in a media-driven society so it's not realistic to imagine cutting them off from that kind of exposure. It's hard enough for mature minds to battle successfully against the constant barrage of messages to buy things, buy more things, buy more expensive things. We can't expect children to be more discerning than we are.

And yet, what's the real price of this new, early awareness and coveting of brand status? On a positive note (I'm trying hard here), it can teach children that a higher-quality purchase is a better choice than buying a lot of lesser-quality items. But that's a pretty sophisticated concept for a ten-year-old to grasp. In fact, it's a concept that seems to elude many adults.

I do believe that life is supposed to be as joyful as we can make it, so that means that we don't need to deny ourselves those things we can afford if they will bring us joy. The problem is that, in the long run, things, no matter what they cost, often don't bring us joy at all; they just add to our collection of things. And now I'm concerned that we're allowing our children to set up expectations that stuff, especially expensive stuff, equals happiness. This is not the road we want them to travel.

I hope that during this holiday season, we all can take some time to explain to the kids in our lives that enduring happiness can't be bought. We can tell them that, yes, it's possible to buy a momentary thrill (think of hot chocolate on a cold afternoon!), a fashion season's pleasure, perhaps even something so special that we'll treasure it for many years, but we can't buy the deeper happiness that sustains us.

I hope that we can inspire them by practicing what we preach, too. We can start by having the whole family gather up as many unnecessary possessions as we can and then donating those unused, outgrown, excess items to a worthy charity. That creates a good feeling that your kids can hold onto for their entire lives. That's a little bit of true happiness.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Buy Nothing Day

Artist Ted Dave came up with the idea for the first Buy Nothing Day in 1992 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Five years later, the date was moved to the Friday after America's Thanksgiving Day, also known as "Black Friday" in the retail trade because it's the busiest shopping day on the calendar. Thanks to the Adbusters Media Foundation, over the years the event has gone global, although outside of the U.S. it usually occurs a day later, on Saturday. Activist groups organize to cut up their credit cards, dress up like zombies and roam shopping malls, throw a neighborhood block party give-away, or whatever will draw attention to the massive problem of overconsumption of goods by the wealthiest of our planet's inhabitants. Individuals can participate simply by taking the day off from shopping. Buy nothing and you'll be a part of the world-wide celebration.

Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, said in this year's press release, "Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great, but they are Band-Aid solutions if we don't address the core problem: we have to consume less." And who, by now, hasn't heard the statistic that 20% of the world's population consumes 80% of its goods? I wonder if that's still accurate or if the scales have tipped even further in the wrong direction.

It's an interesting challenge to forego shopping completely for a day, especially the day the vast majority of us seem to decide to take care of our holiday purchases. Yes, this requires a little advance planning. Besides the obvious elimination of gift shopping, there will be no quick trip to the store for a forgotten ingredient for the evening meal. No stop at the gas station to fill up the tank. No haircuts or manicures. Not even any quarters dropped in the washing machine to do a load of laundry. No spending at all. It's a bit like an intense Money Meditation: we stop the mindless flow of money (and the continuous acquisition of the stuff it buys) and instead, we just experience our lives. When we take a full day to focus on experiencing life, we might finally understand that it doesn't require a whole bunch of excess stuff. We might figure out that all of that excess stuff actually inhibits the act of experiencing our lives instead of enhancing it.

Undoubtedly there are people who misinterpret the message of Buy Nothing Day and its goal of reducing consumption. I'm quite certain that someone's outraged at the thought that the American Dream of abundance should be criticized in any way and is convinced that it's all part of a conspiracy to destroy our economy. (Of course, these days it seems like just about everything is part of a conspiracy in somebody's mind.) But that's a pretty difficult position for a rational thinker to support. The Buy Nothing folks are just trying to raise a little consciousness about the limited resources of our planet. And in case anyone out there hasn't noticed, we are on a planet with a pretty specific and limited set of characteristics that allow us to sustain our lives. Alter the balance too much and we end up with global warming . . . oh, excuse me, "climate change."

More unfortunate than the fanatics who dismiss Buy Nothing Day are the people who think that they can't make an effective political statement just by not shopping for a day. I don't believe that's the case. In our capitalist system, no matter who's in power, nothing registers more with decision-makers (and even "deciders") than a message delivered via wallet. If you want to send a signal that our country's policies should reflect some awareness and sensitivity about the environment, poverty, and the inter-connectedness of us all, keep your hard-earned money to yourself on Buy Nothing Day. It's only twenty-four little hours, but like that old popular song lyric by Stanley Adams says, what a difference a day makes.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fantasy Life

In "real life," I am both a writer and an artist. I have been known to paint, draw, hand-color photographs, dabble in mixed media, create installations, and try to figure out Photoshop. With the exception of trying to figure out Photoshop, the fruits of my labor take up space, sometimes quite a bit of space. And, like most artists I know, I produce more work than my market demands. It's an occupational hazard. You make art because you love it, because you need to make it, not because you expect to sell it.

In "real life," I live in a townhouse. The space I have available for the storage of my artwork is limited, especially since it's not a great idea to leave art in the garage or in its attached storeroom where walls have been known to leak a bit during heavy rain and where the temperature is completely uncontrolled. Art likes to live where people live: inside where it's comfortable and dry. As a result, the walls (inside) of the townhouse are laden with art. I have made exceptions to this rule by putting some small pieces in plastic bins, wrapping some larger pieces in heavyweight plastic, and optimistically placing them in the garage. I hope this will not prove problematic when the retrospective of my work occurs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (date has not yet been scheduled, but I consider this merely a temporary oversight on their part).

However, in my "art fantasy life" (the reference to the MOMA retrospective probably already has indicated that I do, indeed, have a lively one), I have massive amounts of storage space and a barely contained urge to make work that is monumental in size. Thus, also in the garage, in their original plastic wrap, are fourteen canvasses, unused. Their size was limited only by what I could fit in the back of my Honda Civic hatchback; I did have to acknowledge that reality. Their presence has long tortured me because I want to keep them and use them, but I know that I have nowhere to put the finished work. Worst of all, I like to work with oil paints and they take, literally, months to dry. A dilemma, don't you think?

Well, I think we all have similar fantasy lives, probably multiple ones, and the dilemmas that go with them. Do you have a bunch of gardening tools and supplies, yet you have no garden? Do you have a sewing machine and a big box of beautiful material that would make fabulous draperies, but you don't sew? Do you have exercise equipment stashed in your closet that's never seen the light of day and probably never will?

We hang on to these things because they're symbolic of something significant to us, even though, for whatever reason, it's unrealistic. Maybe you live in a tiny apartment and gardening just isn't possible. Maybe you tried sewing and found you didn't have the knack for it, even though you thought you "should." Maybe you hate to exercise but you've found a dance class that's a fun way to stay fit. Whatever the reason we're not using these remnants of our fantasy lives, we're reluctant to let go, as if we've failed somehow.

But letting go doesn't represent failure; it represents acknowledging reality. It represents moving on. Perhaps someday you'll have your garden, but meanwhile you'll grow a few lovely plants in your apartment. Let the tools go. You finally admit to yourself that you tried sewing because your big sister was good at it and you wanted to be like her. You're like you instead, and that's just fine. Let the sewing stuff go. You're already dancing and loving it. Let the exercise equipment go.

So, I'm finally taking my own advice. I will live in my "real life" when it comes to my art. I'm selling the unused canvasses to another artist who has a very large studio. I'll create my art within the boundaries of my reality, which still gives me quite a bit of latitude, especially if you include cyberspace...

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Dangerous Season

We've barely squeaked past Halloween and suddenly temptation is everywhere. Almost overnight, the staff of stores across the country made frantic efforts to get the holiday stock out onto the shelves, into the window displays, and, perhaps worst of all, into our mailboxes. Yes, the Crate & Barrel catalogue has arrived. Heaven help me when the Pottery Barn catalogue shows up. I'm only human.

Of course I want the gorgeous stemware. Yes, I want the beautiful candleholders. How quickly can that massive, rustic display cabinet get delivered?

A few deep breaths later, after the covetous attack has lost its grip on my psyche, I calm myself enough to remember that I want stuff to leave the premises, not enter. In fact, I've recently been feeling a powerful urge to let go of yet another layer of my possessions so, thankfully, I'm able to resist the allure of all the fabulous goodies that surround me whenever I venture outside the house -- or open the mail.

But what a challenge this time of year can be. For some retailers, holiday sales make or break their businesses, so they certainly have a vested interest in getting us to buy. For some manufacturers, it's the same situation, just one step back on the chain of distribution. But for some consumers, this season of joy is a dangerous trap that provides little more than an excuse to acquire useless items and incur uncomfortable debt.

If you're already living in a fully-stocked or (more likely) over-stocked home, but you're still absolutely convinced that you simply cannot survive without that charmingly retro fondue pot, or temperature-controlled wine cooler, or complete new set of shiny decorations for the table and tree in this year's fashionable color combination, trust me, please: it's all a trick. You don't need any of it. You may want it, but that's something else entirely. And don't try telling yourself that you're going to give it as a gift to someone else when you're the one you're really trying to satisfy.

And why do you want all those things? Well, many of them are, indeed, lovely and have intrinsic appeal. But never underestimate the power of advertising. How often do we want things because they represent the kind of life we wish we could lead, or believe that we ought to be leading? I'm convinced that far too often we see those happy families or laughing party-goers in cleverly designed, seductive advertisements and think, "Gee, if I only had a living room that looked like that, I'd have those attractive, cool people hanging out at my house." Alas, it's just not true. People who hang out at your house do so because they like you, not your stuff. In fact, if you figure out that they're hanging out at your house because they like your stuff and not you, it's time to find some new people to hang out with!

So, this holiday season, when we're shopping for ourselves or shopping for gifts, let's try to pause, take those few deep breaths and get a grip on our perfectly human urge to reach out and grab the pretty sparkly object. Do we need it or do we want it? If we want it, I'm not suggesting that we deny ourselves or our family and friends for no good reason. Let's just think about it for a minute first before we pull out our wallets. Let's be thoughtful consumers. I know we'll be much happier if we don't let the joyful spirit of the season get lost in a frenzy of mindless shopping.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob